Elton broke good news to John

JOHN McMAHON
JOHN McMAHON
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IMAGINE Phil Brown having to wait by the telephone praying for a call from a television presenter to give him the good news that Preston North End had sealed promotion.

The idea is inconceivable in this day and age of the internet and 24-hour TV sports news channels.

But for ex-North End star John McMahon that is the exact scenario which played out when he was part of Nobby Stiles’ victorious team which won promotion back to the old Second Division in the 1977/78 season.

Waiting anxiously for news of a score elsewhere, which had a direct result on North End’s hopes of securing the third and final automatic promotion spot, McMahon received a call from former Granada sports presenter Elton Welsby, who broke the good news.

“I remember that season it went right down to the wire,” McMahon recalls. “We drew at Wrexham and we had to wait for the Peterborough result.

“I think we had finished all our games, but Peterborough still had one game left to play.

“I think we had a better goal difference. I can’t exactly remember, but Peterborough either lost or drew and we went up by a point or on goal difference.

“It was Elton Welsby – remember him – who phoned me at home and said. ‘You’re promoted!’”

For a man who appeared to be on the brink of leaving North End on several occasions, it seems ironic that McMahon would go on to become one of the club’s longest serving players.

The Manchester-born full-back amassed nearly 300 appearances for the club in a 14-year association, which included two promotions.

However, his career at North End was nearly over before it began, while fate played its part when it seemed the club was on the verge of selling him for big money.

McMahon, though, loved his time at North End and will go down in history as one of the club’s classiest ever full-backs.

He arrived at Deepdale in the summer of 1965 at the age of 16 to start an apprenticeship. Released as a schoolboy by his beloved Manchester United, McMahon was offered apprenticeship terms by Coventry and Preston.

He chose North End after being persuaded to do so by the club’s assistant secretary at the time Stuart Webb, who would go on to become chairman of Derby County.

“I had to fight for everything at North End,” McMahon recalls.

“I remember when I was 18, the club was not going to sign me as a professional.

“The manager at the time, Jimmy Milne, was going to let me go.

“It was Stuart Webb who told me to hang on.

“So I hung on and hung on, and they eventually they signed me as a professional.

“Then Alan Ball senior came in as manager.

“George Ross was the full-back at the time and it came to be that there wasn’t a position for me, so I went out on loan to Southend.

“Bally wanted to sell me to them for £10,000, but I would not go.

“George Ross then got a bad Achilles tendon injury and Bally put me in the team and I never looked back.”

The young star made his debut at the age of 21 against West Bromwich Albion during the 1970/71 season and went on to play a further 10 games that season as North End won the Third Division championship.

“One minute Bally was trying to sell me, the next he was saying that he would never let me go – not even for £100,000,” McMahon said.

McMahon soon won a regular place at right-back as Ross failed to recover from his injury.

The club struggled in the old Second Division, flirting with relegation in their first couple of seasons back, before eventually falling into the drop zone during the 1973-74 season.

While the team struggled, McMahon stood out and it looked certain his boyhood love Manchester United were going to sign him nearly a decade after they released him as a schoolboy.

United legend Bobby Charlton was the manager at Deepdale at the time, but his departure from the club scuppered McMahon’s dream move to Old Trafford.

“I was gutted I didn’t sign for United the first time really because I’m from Manchester and I’m a United fan.

“I had been there from the age of 13 to 15. It’s ironic that when Bobby Charlton was manager at Preston, I was going to United in a swap deal with Micky Martin.

“Tommy Docherty was the manager of United at the time but it all fell through because the clubs couldn’t agree.

“Then they agreed a loan deal.

“But Bobby then got sacked.

“We were playing Blackburn Rovers the day Bobby left in the League Cup.

“I think we beat Blackburn, but I remember Alan Jones, who was North End chairman at the time, came up to me and said. ‘Doc knows the price you want and he’s not willing to pay it’.

“After that, Doc put Jimmy Nicholl in at United and he never looked back.”

“But there were a few times when things like that happened.

“I remember once Bally coming up to me and saying the club had agreed a fee with Ipswich.

“Bobby Robson was the manager and it was the days of when they had a good team and were in the First Division.

“We were playing away at Orient on the Friday night and Bally said to me that I had to meet him in the hotel foyer on the Saturday morning and I would be signing for Ipswich once I had agreed terms.

“Anyway, I had a nightmare of a game against Orient and I came down the stairs in the morning and Bally told me that Bobby didn’t fancy me anymore. I think Bobby then put George Burley in at full-back and, of course, he never looked back.”

One of the highlights of his time at North End was being managed and playing alongside one of his all-time heroes Charlton.

“When Bobby came in, for me it was fantastic,” he said

“Being a United fan and, of course, Bobby was someone I had known since I was a schoolboy.

“Bobby was a great player and in the second year, he came out playing for Preston.

“He was still a great player even then.

“But, probably, management came a little too soon for him.”

Despite having this legend of the game playing alongside him, McMahon has a theory that Charlton’s presence as a player maybe hindered the team.

The former World Cup winner was unable to prevent the club from sliding into the Third Division during his first year in charge and in a desperate bid to turn North End’s fortunes around, he pulled on his boots once more the season after.

“Everybody wanted to see Bobby play,”McMahon said.

“I remember we once played Plymouth Argyle and they had an average gate of something like 17,000, but when we played them the gate was something like 32,000.

“He doubled the crowd everywhere he went.

“Straight away it was like a cup final for these teams.

“All the crowds wanted to see was this great player playing in what was the Third Division at the time.

“When Bobby finally left, he said he left on principle because he didn’t want John Bird to sign for Newcastle.

“He told the board that if they sold John, he would resign and, of course, they did sell him so he left.”

All in all, McMahon has nothing but fond memories of his time as a North Ender.

He was awarded a testimonial for his long service in 1977, and eventually left to join Crewe Alexandra in 1979.

McMahon enjoyed a spell at Wigan Athletic, before finishing his professional career at Tranmere Rovers.

He said: “I had some great times at Preston. We had the promotions and I remember a few good cup results – I remember some bad ones as well.

“But I remember we drew away at Spurs and bringing them back to Deepdale.

“They had people like Terry Venables, Alan Mullery and Mike England in their side.

“We lost 2-1 after extra-time in the replay. Steve Perryman scored the winner.

“We also played Manchester United in the FA Cup at Deepdale, we got beaten 2-0.

“The wall at the Kop collapsed because of the sheer weight of the crowd. They had to put all the fans on the track around the pitch.

“But United had George Best, Denis Law, Paddy Crerand and Bobby playing that day.”